As human beings, we generally perceive the world around us through the sense of sight. It is no surprise then that we are continually amazed when we stumble upon phenomenal new light displays. One such aspect of the natural world that has captivated scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike is bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence refers to the phenomenon in which living organisms emit light chemically at the molecular level. It is estimated that more than 90% of all marine species (the majority of which are deep sea organisms) and some land creatures have this intriguing ability. Bioluminescence is rooted in a combination of a specialized pigment, luciferin, and an enzyme referred to as luciferase. The blending of the two substances triggers chemical reactions that ultimately bring about light.
In the ocean, some of the most spectacular examples of bioluminescence are created by plankton. These microorganisms are capable of creating twinkling, glittering effects that are reminiscent of starry skies. Deep sea creatures such as anglerfish and jellyfish also emit ethereal blue, green, or red light. It is believed that some of these creatures employ bioluminescence for communication and hunting purposes.
On land, bioluminescence is a less common trait. Fireflies are perhaps the most commonly recognized (and beloved) example of this phenomenon. Fireflies, which are actually beetles, can turn parts of their abdomen into light-emitting diodes. The result is a beautiful and peaceful display that has delighted humans for generations.
But why is bioluminescence such a fascinating story? There is something enchanting and humorous about creatures being capable of producing their private light shows. More than that, bioluminescence hints at an attribute of the natural world that is still largely shrouded in mystery. The mechanisms that allow organisms to emit light are so complex that scientists are still discovering new insights into how it all works.
Despite the implicit attraction of bioluminescence, there are also very practical and potentially life-saving applications of this phenomenon. For example, researchers are exploring how the capacity to emit light can be adapted for medical uses, such as marking the spread of cancer cells within the body. Bioluminescence might even be utilized to limit greenhouse gas emissions someday when bioluminescent trees can replace streetlights.
As we learn more about bioluminescence, we may find that this phenomenon holds even more surprises and discoveries than we ever imagined. As it turns out, illumination doesn’t always come from light bulbs or stars – sometimes, it appears within the most unlikely of places.